For several weeks now conspiracy theorists have been having fun spreading rumors that an object on Mars that “mysteriously” moved is not natural. One Rhawn Joseph even went so far as to file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California against NASA, citing the sudden appearance of the rock in a place where it wasn’t before as “proof” of life, and he accused NASA of being unwilling to investigate such an incredible discovery further.
Well, that’s because the rock is exactly that, a rock. Not a fungus or any other living organism as Joseph and his conspiracy theorist friends claim. NASA has always known it was a rock; the question, however, was not “what is it” but rather “how did it get there”?
The 1.5-inch-wide, white-rimmed, red-centered rock, which is now dubbed “Pinnacle Island,” was found by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on Jan. 8, 2014, and was photographed in a location where older images of the same spot previously showed no object—leading to all kinds of conspiracy theories as to what it could be and where it came from.
Alien rock throwers? Ejecta from a nearby meteorite impact? Alien fungus?
After some investigating, which is what NASA does, the space agency now has an explanation, and it’s no different than when you kick up gravel while driving down a dirt road.
“Once we moved Opportunity a short distance, after inspecting Pinnacle Island, we could see directly uphill an overturned rock that has the same unusual appearance,” said Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis. “We drove over it. We can see the track. That’s where Pinnacle Island came from.”
The explanation likely won’t convince Joseph and his friends, but it likely won’t warrant a new Mythbusters episode either.
The rock itself is quite interesting, though, at least for a scientist or planetary geologist, because Pinnacle Island contains very high levels of sulfur and manganese, which suggest these water-soluble ingredients were concentrated in the rock by the action of water.
“This may have happened just beneath the surface relatively recently,” Arvidson said, “or it may have happened deeper below ground longer ago and then, by serendipity, erosion stripped away material above it and made it accessible to our wheels.”
Now, with the doughnut-rock mystery solved, Opportunity is on approach to a boulder-studded ridge to investigate exposed rock layers on the slope. The area is informally named the McClure-Beverlin Escarpment, in honor of engineers Jack Beverlin and Bill McClure—the first recipients of the NASA Medal of Exceptional Bravery for their actions on Feb. 14, 1969, to save NASA’s second successful Mars mission, Mariner 6, when the launch vehicle began to crumple on the launch pad from loss of pressure.
Opportunity has now been exploring the Martian surface for a decade and is expected to continue its exploration for quite some time, as long as the rover does not fall victim to any of a thousand different factors that could cripple it (like what happened to its sister rover, Spirit).
“We are now past the minimum solar-energy point of this Martian winter,” said Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “We now can expect to have more energy available each week. What’s more, recent winds removed some dust from the rover’s solar array. So we have higher performance from the array than the previous two winters.”